MARIES COUNTY, Mo. (KMIZ)
As school districts are forced to keep their doors shut across the state for the rest of the academic year, remote learning has become the new normal.
But for some school districts, the COVID-19 crisis is shining light on the lack of internet access in some rural areas in Missouri.
Many Mid-Missouri school districts have been able to move fully online for most our their classes, but Maries County R-I decided that was not an option.
“It uncovered a lot of issues that we didn’t know were there,” Superintendent Mark Parker said.
Parker said 70 percent of the district’s 460 students have access to the internet, and 50 percent have access to the technology needed to access online learning technology.
Connection speeds remain a major hurdle, he said.
“Out in the rural area we live in, the data is not there, and sometimes the reception is not there,” Parker said. “We knew the challenge for us was going to be that we were going to have to come up with a way to do hard copy or packets, something like that to continue the education.”
The district’s teachers were able to distribute the first round of packets to students before school buildings were closed. Teachers are available for students over the phone or email if questions come up.
The district has offered pickup or delivery of the packets to students along with meals.
Parker mentioned the district serves a largely low-income population, with many students on the free and reduced-price lunch program. The district has been looking at options for free WiFi, but many of the families cannot afford a computer.
While the district has enough computers and access available for students when they are allowed in the buildings, Parker said the district is looking at ways in the budget to send technology home for families while also making sure they have the access necessary to use it.
“How can we better educate kids if this happens again in the fall, next spring, if this ever happens again if something comes up that we do have to go on a distant-learning type challenge?” Parker said. “How can we be better equipped to do that?”
The coronavirus pandemic forced the issue to the surface, but Parker said it needed to be addressed regardless.
“I think it has opened the eyes to not only our community, but also people in government on what is needed not only in larger cities, but also in the rural community to actually meet the needs of the kids out in the country here,” he said.
Gov. Mike Parson said Friday that broadband access across the state was one of his top priorities.
“Unfortunately this virus has shown how vulnerable we are in broadband across this state and just trying to do the simple things to educate our kids,” Parson said Friday.
Parson said the funding is in place for broadband access, but gave no timeline for upgrades.
Brent Ghan, deputy executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, said the two main challenges rural school districts face is lack of broadband access and individual families lacking resources.
“The situation we have right now really highlights the inequity issues that we have in education,” Ghan said.
The association is involved in lobbying for the expansion of the federal E-Rate program that helps provide internet access to schools and libraries across the state and country. Ghan said they hope to expand the program to include individual families
“We need to address this issue because even when this crisis passes, I think we are going to see more and more use of virtual education,” Ghan said. “But this equity issue is a major challenge.”
Watch ABC 17 News at 9 and 10 for a full report.
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